Spotlight on: Emma the Comeback Queen

Emma Stone

Emma is the Queen of all revival names. Emma is Queen because she is truly a comeback kid; a name that reclaimed its former glory. You see, most revival names weren’t really that popular the first time around. They may have hit the top 50 or top 100. In some cases, they didn’t even hit the top 100 the first time, but they were popular enough that they were imaginable on our great grandparents’ generation.

When most revival names came back, they became more popular the second time around. For example:

  • Sophia first peaked at #116 in 1882. After declining to the low 600’s in the 1930s, it came back and peaked at #1 in 2011
  • Olivia first peaked at #213 in 1881. It gently declined but never left the top 400. It came back and peaked at #3 in 2009
  • Isabella first peaked at #215 in 1880. After declining into obscurity, it came back and peaked at #1 in 2009.

Unlike other revival names, Emma, was really that popular the first time around. Emma was #3 for most of the 1880s and reclaimed that mantle again nearly 130 years later, reaching #4 in 2002, #2 in 2003 and #1 in 2008. This gives me chills, like seeing a has-been olympic athlete from twenty years ago medal again in his late 30s/early 40s.

Before you all get too misty-eyed, however, I should clarify something. Rankings are only relative. Compared to the number of babies named Emma, the name was actually a lot less popular in the 2000s than it was in the 1880s. The rankings are similar but the real numbers tell a different story.

For example, at Emma’s height in the 1880s, 2% of newborn girls were named Emma. Around this time, Emma even charted for boys, ranking between #461 and #815 until exiting the boy’s top 1000 in 1911. When Emma reached #1 in 2008, 0.9% of newborn girls were named Emma. Emma hasn’t charted on boys in a while. In 2011 there were 31 boys named Emma.

Due to an expanding name pool, the top ranking names are less popular than ever before. But when we compare names relative to each other, Emma is still the Queen of revival names.

There are a couple of pop cultural references credited with pushing Emma into the top baby name ranks.

The most recent is the eighth season finale of Friends, first aired in 2002, where Rachel gives birth to a baby girl, Emma. This could explain Emma’s big leap from #13 in 2001 to #4 in 2002, but Friends can’t be credited with popularizing Emma.

Friends simply made a popular name more popular. Emma hit the top 100 in 1993, almost 10 years before the fateful episode, and hit the top 20 in 1999. Based on this track record, Emma was positioned to hit the top 10 eventually; Friends may have gotten it there sooner, that’s all.

Another possible catalyst for Emma could be the 1996 Jane Austen based period movie, Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The timing could support Emma’s leap from #53 in 1996 to #36 in 1997. But again, the movie simply helped a name that was already on the rise.

Perhaps there is not one, but several references boosting Emma’s popularity; some not even consciously remembered. Back in the mid to late-80s, when I was around 11 or 12, I enjoyed reruns of a show called Kate and Allie in the summer.

The show revolved around two childhood friends, Kate and Allie supporting each other after their divorces. They moved into a New York City apartment along with their children. Kate had a cute teenage daughter named Emma. I distinctly remember thinking Emma was a cute name. For a while I may have even imaged naming my daughter Emma.

Back in 1984 when Kate and Allie first aired, Emma was refreshing on a teenager. The Emma character, Emma Jane McArdle, was probably born in the early 70s when Emma had been at a low point, eventually sinking to the 400s. The actress who played Emma, Ari Meyers, was born in 1969. Lisa would have been the expected name.

The Kate and Allie writers were pioneers when they named their character Emma. When the show first aired, Emma ranked at #342 and by the time the show ended five years later, Emma had risen to #151.

I doubt I was the only pre-teen girl watching Kate and Allie and adding Emma to my baby name list. Most of my peers had children during the years Emma entered the top 20 and rose to #1 (from 1999 to 2008).

Unlike Madison’s popularity, which is almost single-handedly attributed to a self-named mermaid in a 1984 fantasy film, Emma’s rise cannot be attributed to one single pop cultural reference. Now is a good time to  acknowledge the obvious similarity to Emily, the #1 girl name from 1996 to 2007. Emma’s success is, in part, thanks to Emily’s success. Emma’s comeback is a classic example of zeitgeist in action.

And Emma may have declined from the top spot, but still ranked high last year at #3. What’s more telling are up-and-coming names that seem very similar to Emma, such as Emmaline, Emmy, and Gemma. While Emmaline has yet to hit the top 1000, both Emmy and Gemma have charted for the first time within the past 5 years and seen impressive gains. Emmy debuted in 2007 at #958  and has risen to #775 in 2011. Gemma debuted in 2008 at #889, and has risen rapidly to #354 in 2011. This suggests parents still like names like Emma, and are looking for something like Emma but different.

Someone looking for a less obvious substitute might like Elsa, which is slowly climbing the charts, ranking at #578 last year. Another option is Erma. Erma peaked in the 1910s and hasn’t charted since the 1970s. Erma may seem a bit fusty at the moment, but may appeal to bold parents looking for a “beautifully-ugly” name.

I can see Emma following a pattern similar to Amy 30 years earlier. In about two to three decades, after a steep decline, Emma could settle in the 200-300’s, but will always have a universally non-threatening, approachable, timeless sound.

Readers: Which Emma inspired name is your favorite?

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  1. I can’t believe we haven’t seen Erma or Irma show up in hip baby name circles. It’s perfect for those who like Emma’s sound but whose friends all have little Matildas or Pearls.

    • You make a good point about Erma and Irma being similar in style to Matilda and Pearl. Jack Osbourne’s baby daughter is Pearl and I just saw Pearl on Waltzing More than Matilda’s blog. Maybe we haven’t seen the last of Pearl. And perhaps names like Erma and Irma could follow.

      I’m really surprised Elsa isn’t more popular with the popularity of Emma, Ella, Eliza, and Elise. Elsa has that liquid sound, and similarity to Emma. I thought it would soar. I suggested Elsa as a substitute for Emma on another blog and was shocked when another commenter said she thought Elsa was a cow name. If Bella can lose its cow baggage, Elsa surely can too. And this was the first time I had heard of Elsa being predominately a cow’s name. Admittedly I haven’t spent much time with livestock 🙂

      • British American says:

        I know a 7 year old Pearl. 🙂 Lovely name.

        And I remember hearing a Mom call to her little girl “Elsa” at the library within the past year too. 🙂

        I’m not as keen on Erma and Irma though. I think it’s the Err / Urrrr sound – that sounds like you’re thinking of what to say (like “Ummm”) or that you’re making a sound of disgust.

        • I really like Pearl too. My grandmother is 94, and I was looking at one of her old photo albums. One album had pictures of her with friends from when she was in her teens, and she labeled them. One friend was Pearl. Another was Suzanne.

          I’m on the fence with Erma. I wouldn’t feel comfortable using it myself (although I would feel perfectly comfortable using Elsa), but I might like seeing someone else use Erma.

  2. British American says:

    So I just checked on the UK stats for Emma, because growing up in England I have a different impression of the name. The only thing I could find were stats for 1974 which has Emma at #4 and 1984 that has Emma at #4 (and Gemma at #3) in England.

    I knew a few Emmas growing up, so it doesn’t have that cool antique revival vibe for me.

  3. Emma’s not a the Comeback Queen here as she is in the US – she’s pretty much the same as Isabella, with both names being in the #80s in 1900.

    Emma was #30 in the 1970s here, so someone of that age group called Emma wouldn’t have been particularly unusual. I’m guessing we were following British trends, and an American teenager called Emma in the 1980s would be like a Poppy or Matilda now. Fresh and even daring in the US, standard elsewhere. The TV show writers may have found name inspiration overseas?

    Come to think of it, I don’t know why Emma became popular here. Something happened during the 1960s. My guess would be the lovely and stylish Emma Peel, in the TV show, “The Avengers”.

    (I went to school with several Emmas).

    • U.S. TV show writers are often ahead of name trends when it comes to naming characters. I think Samantha became more popular because of the show, “Bewitched” in the 60s. Samantha is not uncommon on American woman/girls between 10 – 40, but seems somewhat uncommon on Americans over 40. I wonder if Samantha was fresh and daring in the US in the 1960s, but standard elsewhere? Maybe U.S. TV shows get their inspiration overseas. I suspect U.S. actors do. Matilda seems fresh and daring among the general U.S. population, but seems common on American celebrities’ kids.

      • Yes you’re right – Samantha has charted here since the 1950s, and by the 1960s was already Top 100.

        Samantha first became famous, I believe, from the character Tracey Samantha Lord, from “The Philadelphia Story” and “High Society”. “High Society” was re-made in 1956 starring Grace Kelly, and featured the song “I Love You Samantha”. So the inspiration for Samantha’s name in “Bewitched” was American, but it was an American name which had already gained popularity overseas.

        By the way, I forgot to say I am seeing soooo many baby Elsas in birth announcements since Chris Hemsworth married Spanish actress Elsa Pataky. It’s clearly becoming the new Eloise.

        • Samantha’s past is interesting here. It was never in the top 1000 until 1964, but it debuted very high at #473, and the very next year it hit #179. It didn’t hit the top 100 until the 1970s. Today I would consider it a “modern classic”. 🙂

          EDIT: I missed it, Samantha was in the top 1000 in the late 19th/early 20th century, but never ranked that high.

  4. I just checked and “Bewitched” didn’t air until September of 1964 – could it really have had such a massive effect in just the last few months of the year? Not sure how far in advance publicity was, and whether it mentioned Samantha’s name ….

    • You raise some good questions. Normally I wouldn’t think that a show would have such an effect in just the last four months of the year, but the name did rise dramatically the following year. Perhaps 40-50 years ago, parents were more impressionable and less likely to get scared off by TV show publicity, which might actually discourage some parents today who try to avoid trendy names. And you could be right about the publicity being far in advance.

      • What’s even weirder is to be born at the end of 1964, the parents would have had months of pregnancy-time to choose a name … but if inspired by the show, they went with something that had only just appeared on their television sets.

        “Well we were tossing up between Lisa and Sarah, and then this new show came on TV and we decided it had to be Samantha!”

  5. Look don’t think I’m obsessive or anything, but I was looking through old records to research my last post, and thought I’d take a look at Samantha while I was at it.

    Most of the 1964 births of Samanthas were indeed between September and December (one was the day after the first episode went to air!), so yes I think “Bewitched” is responsible.

    There was also a spike during May, and I wonder if that was when publicity began, because it would have been 6 months after the pilot was filmed.


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